Sharkies + Chewbacca = One Hell Of A Business Model

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ladybitsembedPhoto: Courtesy of BlackMilk.
Introducing LadyBits, an ultra-cool collective of tech journalists who look at the world with smart, lady lenses. And since we're always in the market for the best stuff out there, we'll feature its know-how on the regular. Below, check out one of LadyBits' innovator spotlights, prepared especially for Refinery29.

For years, we’ve been eyeing Black Milk’s geek-chic designs — an R2D2 swimsuit, thigh-high suspenders and the now ubiquitously knocked-off galaxy leggings — but the label wasn't always flourishing. So how did a struggling, one-man operation become one of the most recognizable names in street fashion, all while brokering huge licensing deals with Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings? The way most of our favorite things get done: through the Internet.

Black Milk launched in 2009 after Australian designer James Lillis began taking sewing lessons at a local fabric shop, and working out of his kitchen to perfect one pair of nylon leggings at a time. After making a few individual sales, he turned to clothing stores and local markets to sell his designs on a larger scale, but the results were lackluster and not financially viable. While Lillis was hawking his designs to local shops, he maintained a blog, Too Many Tights. Although brick-and-mortar sales were disappointing, customers flooded the site requesting a pair of his now-signature nylons.

Quickly, he realized an online shop was the way to go and began offering limited quantities based on his production capability. As the demand for muscle-printed leggings and American flag catsuits grew, nylon fanatics with a ravenous lust for Black Milk crashed the site and earned themselves a nickname: sharkies.

“At the time, it was pretty stressful for all involved, including our customers, so we put up a splash page to tell the story,” said Cameron Parker, the company’s marketing and operations manager. “We had a picture of Lady Gaga in a meat suit in the water with some apex predator sharks, and our customers latched onto that. Now it’s become the mascot of the brand.”

And, though they're now better equipped to handle an influx of site traffic with growing staff of 150 employees, the feeding frenzy continues. “At the time a collection goes live, we have tens of thousands of people around the world clicking our website to be the first to grab it,” Parker said. “In Europe, they’re getting up early. In America, they’re staying up late.” Often quantities of each monthly collection are limited not for pure marketing purposes, but due to production capability and fabric availability.

With the laws of supply and demand already on its side, and an advertising budget of zero dollars according to Parker, Black Milk focuses on social media and its insatiable sharkies to further its success. Currently, Black Milk has more than half a million Facebook likes, 640,000 Instagram followers, and hundreds of thousands of hashtagged selfies of Black Milk-wearing fanatics spread across these sites. With those kinds of numbers, who needs an advertising budget?

Parker saw Black Milk’s social growth and harnessed the power of hashtags with a simple API integrated into its online shop. Beneath each photo of a professional model is a hashtag that is unique to a particular garment. Using the hashtags, the site aggregates data from Facebook and Instagram to populate images of sharkies in their Black Milk gear. At a time when body image issues are recognized as crucial conversations by parents, peers, and fashion designers alike, Black Milk’s choice to crowdsource its photos highlights a willingness to participate in the conversation and make it clear that it’s not all about the size zeros.

“It’s all about positive body image,” Parker says. “It doesn’t matter what size you are, anybody can rock Black Milk. Some of our sharkies are even men.”

Their desire to do their own thing — like make leggings bearing the visages of Chewbacca and Han Solo and dresses printed with Tolkien’s detailed map of Middle Earth — earned them a loyal fan base that not only contributes photographs, but has fostered a sense of community both online and off. Sharkies have built more than 60 communities based on location and special interests. Meet-ups are held offline, with Lillis and Parker often in attendance.

“We’ve developed a really close relationship with our sharkies. They tell us if they like something and they tell us if they don’t. Some people call it a cult,” Parker says. “But it’s an amazing cult.”

This post was authored by Katie DeRogatis.
Introducing LadyBits, an ultra-cool collective of tech journalists who look at the world with smart, lady lenses. And, since we're always in the market for the best stuff out there, we'll feature its know-how on the regular.